Early Sunday morning, a woman named Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and sees that the stone that was rolled in front of the tomb has been rolled back. This is the same Mary who has been a disciple of Jesus since he cast seven demons out of her (see Luke 8:2). She runs to tell Peter and John that someone has removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, writes,
The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common that the Emperor Claudius (ad 41–54) eventually ordered capital punishment to be meted out to those convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies or even displacing the sealing stones. John records no hint of the Jewish allegation that Jesus’ disciples were the ones who stole Jesus’ body (cf. Mt. 28:13–15), but the fact that such a charge could be levelled demonstrates that grave robbery was not uncommon. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did. In distress she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to Peter and the beloved disciple.
Peter and John run to the tomb, but John arrives first. He peers inside and sees that the linens which covered Jesus’ body are still there. Peter arrives and goes straight into the tomb and sees that not only the linens have been left behind, but the separate cloth that covered Jesus’ face has been folded neatly and placed a short distance away from the other linens. Carson remarks:
What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26). The description of the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head does not suggest that it still retained the shape of the corpse, but that it had been neatly rolled up and set to one side by the one who no longer had any use for it. The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up; and the fact that two men saw it (v. 8) makes their evidence admissible in a Jewish court (Dt. 19:15).
John follows Peter into the tomb and based on the linens and face cloth being left behind, he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. John mentions, parenthetically, that none of the disciples, at this point, understand that Scripture had predicted that Jesus must rise from the dead. At this point, Peter does not seem to have come to the same belief as John. Both of them return to the houses in Jerusalem where they are staying during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Mary Magdalene stays behind at the tomb (or comes back later to visit by herself) and weeps because she believes Jesus’ body has been stolen from the tomb. Mary peers into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. Mary laments that someone has stolen the body, but she then turns around and sees a man whom she does not recognize. The man also asks her why she is weeping and, also, whom she is seeking. She assumes he is a gardener, taking care of the grounds, and she begs him to tell her where the body of Jesus lies.
The man then calls her name and she immediately realizes that the gardener is not a gardener at all, but Jesus, risen from the dead. Mary probably falls to the ground and wraps her arms around Jesus’ feet and legs. She doesn’t want to lose him again, but she has misunderstood Jesus’ mission, for he is not going to resume his role as the earthly rabbi whom Mary had followed. He must return to heaven to reign with God the father and it is Mary’s job to tell the disciples. It is in this light that Jesus says to Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, remarks,
That a woman would be the first to see Him is an evidence of Jesus’ electing love as well as a mark of the narrative’s historicity. No Jewish author in the ancient world would have invented a story with a woman as the first witness to this most important event. Furthermore, Jesus may have introduced Himself to Mary first because she had so earnestly sought Him. She was at the cross while He was dying (John 19:25), and she went to His tomb early on Sunday morning (20:1).
Mary does exactly as Jesus commands her. She finds the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them that she has just seen Jesus, face to face, and that he is ascending to his Father.